One of the most enjoyable mainstream books I've read in recent months is Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Determined to discover why we live as we do, Bryson ended up penning an amusing rabbit trail of large swaths of human history. An engaging writer, Bryson's dry wit manages to convey tremendous volumes of detail while keeping the reader thoroughly entertained. One of my favorite lines, written about a project engineer, showcases Bryson's flair: "He was indubitably a genius, but an unnerving one, as it nearly always took epic infusions of time and cash to find a point of intersection between his soaring visions and an achievable reality." Love that description!
The premise of At Home is summarized in the preface:
Houses are amazingly complex repositories. What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world--whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over--eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house. Wars, famines, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment--they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked into the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint of your walls and the water of your pipes. So the history of household life isn't just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up.
It is appropriate that I write this review from an historic mansion in Cape May, NJ. As the nation's first seaside resort, Cape May is a living tribute to the Victorian era. The elaborate furniture and traditions that we associate with the Victorians is contrasted in my mind with the developments of glass, sewer systems, and flush toilets that Bryson recounts in this book. Why did brass beds come into vogue? Bedbugs. Why did Chicago become a booming center of trade? Ice. What were among the most treasured commodities in the world? Spices.
And did you know that Thomas Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence, but also the father of the American french fry?
Bryson even detours into church life in the 19th century, giving modern church-goers another reason to be grateful for their modern facilities:
Many churches made most of their money from burials, and were loath to give up such lucrative business. At the Enon Baptist Church on Clement's Lane in Holborn (now the site of the campus of the London School of Economics), the church authorities managed to cram a colossal twelve thousand bodies in the cellar in just nineteen years. Not surprisingly, such a volume of rotting flesh created odors that could not well be contained. It was a rare service in which several worshippers didn't faint. Eventually, most stopped coming altogether, but still the chapel kept accepting bodies for interment. The parson needed the income."
In fact, Bryson notes that the medical journal The Lancet ran "occasional reports of people overcome by bad air while visiting graveyards."
The chapter on human waste, urban sewage troubles, and the invention of the flush toilet leaves one practically without words. If you can think of no other reason to be grateful today, be grateful you live in the hygienic era of toilets and germ theory! And this is where we can circle back to Cape May.
But where America was really ahead of the rest of the world was in the provision of private bathrooms. Here the main driver was not homeowners, but hotels. The very first hotel in the world to offer a bath for every bedroom was the Mount Vernon Hotel in the resort community of Cape May, New Jersey. This was in 1853 and was so far ahead of its time that over half a century passed before any other hotels offered such exravagance.
Finally, sprinkled throughout his prose are quick references to the history of a word or phrase. As Bryson writes, "Perhaps the most irrational fashion act of all was the male habit for 150 years of wearing wigs. ... Wigs were so valuable--a full one could cost £50--that they were left as bequests in wills. The more substantial the wig, the higher up the social echelon one stood--one became literally a bigwig."
If you want to know the history of nearly everything you use on a daily basis, this book will explain it all to you. And then some.
(Photo: The Southern Mansion in Cape May.)